The making of Jayalalithaa, the poll strategist

A look at how she defined electoral politics in Tamil Nadu by adopting some of the unconventional strategies over the years

Updated - May 26, 2016 11:23 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2016 04:20 pm IST

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa takes oath as member of the 15th Tamil Nadu Assembly on Wednesday.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa takes oath as member of the 15th Tamil Nadu Assembly on Wednesday.

By becoming the first Chief Minister to win two elections in a row after three decades, AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa is only continuing a tradition of her own — that of a tradition breaker. She has defined electoral politics in Tamil Nadu by adopting some of the unconventional strategies over the years. Here we have a look at her evolution as a poll strategist.

Political fortunes out of Assembly pandemonium

December 2, 1972 and March 25, 1989 are considered black days in the history of Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. M. Karunanidhi has the dubious distinction of being the Chief Minister on both occasions.

Speaker K.A. Mathiazhagan had become a vocal supporter of ADMK leader M.G.Ramachandran after the latter was expelled from the DMK on October 10, 1972 for raising corruption charges against the DMK leadership. Mathiazhagan even ‘advised’ Karunanidhi to dissolve the House and face fresh elections. On December 2, 1972, the ruling DMK elected a Speaker on its own, even as Mathiazhagan was presiding over the House. Thus, the House saw parallel proceedings conducted by two ‘Speakers’. Both the Speakers would cancel each other’s actions, resulting in pandemonium. Chappals were thrown at M.G.Ramachandran and he vowed to attend the Assembly only as Chief Minister, which he later did.

Similarly, on March 25, 1989, when Chief Minister Karunanidhi was about to present the budget, Ms. Jayalalithaa tried to raise a privilege issue, but was disallowed by the Speaker. As Ms. Jayalalithaa persisted with her demand and Mr. Karunanidhi came out with some retort, the Assembly was plunged into chaos. The budget papers were snatched from his hands, even as his spectacles were broken as an AIADMK member pounced on him. There was shouting from both sides, as paperweights and chairs were thrown about. Ms. Jayalalithaa was attacked allegedly by DMK members. She emerged from the House with torn clothes and dishevelled hair. She too vowed to return to the Assembly only as Chief Minister.

Months after this incident, the AIADMK-Congress combine swept the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu winning 38 out of 39 seats.

Prime mover

However, Ms. Jayalalithaa’s reinvention as a prime mover in Tamil Nadu politics happened almost a decade after she took control of the AIADMK founded by M.G. Ramachandran.

In 1996, she suffered a humiliating loss in the Assembly elections. Everyone was predicting her political doom. Then, in 1998 -- her annus mirabilis -- she made a comeback in the Lok Sabha polls.

Facing a formidable DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance that handed down a huge defeat just two years ago, Ms. Jayalalithaa dared to do something that till then was unthinkable to the State’s mainstream parties. She courted the BJP (which was seen as being communal), the PMK (which was seen as being casteist) and the MDMK (which was fighting to stay relevant).

Belying pollsters, her alliance won 27 seats and made her the main player in the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

That election also saw the end of national parties grabbing a lion’s share in the Lok Sabha polls from the State.

Ms. Jayalalithaa’s move forced the DMK towards the BJP. When she pulled down the Vajpayee government, the DMK jumped into the NDA. And the PMK and the MDMK found berths in the next NDA government.   

Approach to by-elections

By-elections in the States used to be events that gauged the incumbent government’s popularity and was a premonition of things to come. Ms. Jayalalithaa took bypolls seriously and made it a point to leave no stone unturned to ensure that her party won them when she was in government. The 2001 Tiruchi Lok Sabha by-election and the 2002 Assembly bypoll in Vaniyambadi saw a move away from the status quo, once again scripted by the AIADMK leader.

In Vaniyambadi, a conventional Muslim seat, all parties mostly fielded a candidate from within the community only. But in 2002, Ms. Jayalalithaa fielded a Hindu candidate in the bypoll necessitated by the death of Abdul Latheef, one of the top Muslim leaders in the State. Not only did she negate the >claim of Latheef’s party , the Indian National League that was once her ally, but she also saw her candidate, a little-known >R. Vadivel, win with a huge margin against the DMK’s Nagore E.M. Hanifa, a popular Islamic devotional singer.

The 2003 Sathankulam byelection came at a crucial time when the Jayalalithaa government was facing resentment over an anti-conversion law, widely perceived as targeting Christians. Ms. Jayalalithaa campaigned for no less than six days in Sathankulam which has a sizeable Christian vote bank. Sarees and utensils, apart from cash, were reportedly distributed, mainly in rural areas. The AIADMK won the election and went on to influence the DMK to try the >same formula in Thirumangalam in 2009.

Dalits for general seats

For all their talk about empowering Dalits, the mainstream parties have always confined them to reserved constituencies. Breaking the mould, Ms. Jayalalithaa fielded Dalit Ezhilmalai, former Union Minister and a prominent Dalit face since his times in the PMK, in the Tiruchi Lok Sabha bypoll and >ensured his win against the >DMK-BJP alliance candidate .  

Show without allies

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Ms. Jayalalithaa decided to field AIADMK candidates in all 39 seats in the State and the lone seat in Puducherry — a major leap for the party. Even its founder M.G.Ramachandran had never tried this. He left the majority of seats to alliance partner Congress in the Lok Sabha polls and vice versa in Assembly elections. Her first no-allies election brought in one more laurel — surpassing MGR’s record by winning 37 seats.

She repeated the same formula in the recent Assembly elections. Despite apprehensions over the party’s ‘greedy’ approach in contesting in all the 234 seats with the Two Leaves symbol, without any alliance, she proved critics wrong, and won a comfortable majority.

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